Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Apple shouldn't compromise on their quality.

Years ago, I used to explain to my friends how it just wasn't worth it to buy a Mac. This is highlighted by the picture below:
Please click on the image to see it full size.

As you can gather by the image above, Apple makes its meat and potatoes by selling these exquisite MacBook laptops and Mac desktops. Prior to 2006, Apple used Motorola PowerPC processors for their hardware and claimed that the exclusive components were what made their machines so expensive.  After 2006, it's hard to see exactly why their machines are exactly high cost.  When they switched to the Intel processors, there was not much of a difference between store computers that ran Windows or Linux versus the ones that ran Mac OS.

While this image is also a few years old, you can see how Apple chooses to price gouge the consumer by charging $700 for a RAID controller that you can buy for [at the time] $300 from NewEgg.  They charged an alarming 31 cents per gigabyte for their hard drives when the industry standard was 12 cents per GB.  They charged $100 for a DVD RW drive when you could have a similar one for $20-30.  So why am I here complaining about Apple's prices when the title of this article says that they shouldn't compromise their quality?  Simple: because they've found their niche and shouldn't give up on it.

We've seen this kind of competition throughout history, and changing your game comes at an extremely high cost.  Continental Airlines wanted to compete with Southwest and rolled out the poorly-thought-out Continental Lite.  They got rid of their ticketing system, meals on flights, and dealing with travel agents to compete against Southwest for the lower-priced traveler market.  Instead, they flopped horribly and the CEO was canned.  They couldn't have their cake and eat it too; they attempted to have their stake in the regular market and then also go for the price-savvy consumer.

Currently, desktop and laptop manufacturers not running Apple's OS X are cornering a specific market, namely consumers who are looking for something that will let them surf the web, check e-mail, listen to music, watch movies, and maybe play the occasional game.  This can be had with machines that cost anywhere from $300-600.  A decent gaming rig will still be under $1000.  For a comparable Mac, you will not find a (new) laptop below the price of $999, or a desktop below the cost of $1299 [iMac].  I hesitate to include the $599 Mac Mini because desktop computers with the current specs listed there don't even sell aside from underpowered eMachines which retail for about half as much.  The iMac also doesn't include a display, which will easily set you back anywhere from $200 upwards.

So what has Mac got that PC and Linux don't?  Exclusivity.  Prestige.  Hip-ness.  Every cheap college student probably has a laptop or desktop that's running Windows (or possibly a distro of Linux), but the "sexiest" users are going to be those in your local coffee shops, offices, and libraries running a MacBook.  Even the glowing Apple logo on the back makes it look cool.  But why?  Because there's a price to pay for quality.

Apple used to actually have aluminum backing for their MacBook, which I thought was a nice touch on a sleek design.  But around 2007 or 2008, they decided that it should only be available for the twice-as-pricy MacBook Pro and gave the lowly MacBook users a plastic shell.  And now, you can't even buy a standard MacBook, as the MacBook Air has taken its throne with wonderful "features" such as no optical drive, shorter battery life, and being non-upgradeable.  However, Mac ownership continues to creep up, and there's no shortage of these systems in the wild.

I thought for years, "Why can't Apple make an affordable solution for their customers who can't justify paying twice as much?"  Back in 2009, my prayers were [slightly] answered by a company named Psystar.  They were building "Hackintoshes" for people on a budget.  After all, Apple was using Intel processors, so what was stopping users from just installing it on their machines?

Apple has always used the "walled garden" approach to their hardware, iPhone included.  It uses only a particular set of components and won't bother with trying to make drivers for every single piece of hardware that could possibly go into the system, and it matches their company's age-old slogan of "It just works."  The Psystar Hackintoshes were clearly not without their share of issues getting it to run, and the amount of circumvention needed to navigate OS X was eventually used by the Apple via DMCA claims. 

"Apple employs technological protection measures that effectively control access to Apple's copyrighted works," the revised complaint read. "Defendant has illegally circumvented Apple's technological copyright-protection measures."

Specifically, Apple charged Psystar with acquiring or creating "code" that "avoids, bypasses, removes, descrambles, decrypts, deactivates or impairs a technological protection measure without Apple's authority for the purpose of gaining unauthorized access to Apple's copyrighted works."

So there went Psystar, and the hopes and dreams of people wanting to legitimately purchase a Mac without paying over twice the cost for it.  Of course, you could still build your own Hackintosh, but is it really worth the effort?  Apple has found something that works for them and they are catering to a specific market.  They are not looking to have 100% market penetration (their shareholders may feel differently), but they want to be the coolest out there.  You can see that in everything from their design to the applications they approve, to the ads that they run.

Ultimately, why buy a Mac?  Perhaps you want to edit photos or video (which you can still do on Windows/Linux), perhaps you want to make art (which you can still do on Windows/Linux), or maybe you want to make some music (again...).  But this is what the difference is between eating a All-American cheeseburger and having a gourmet burger with cave-aged gruyere, ramps, and remoulade on it: you're going to go for what's most attractive to you and your budget.  And sometimes, you've got to live a little.

[Full disclosure: I'm a Windows/Linux user at heart and will probably never purchase a MacBook or Mac desktop, but I do own an iPod.  I guess I'm a sucker for quality too.]

1: "Why You Shouldn't Buy a Mac"
2: "Apple adds DMCA charge to lawsuit against Psystar"

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